(Audio)Book Talk: BEAUTIFUL RUINS, by Jess Walter

BEAUTIFUL RUINS audiobook cover
Beautiful Ruins: A Novel
Jess Walter
Audiobook read by Edoardo Ballerini
Harper Perennial (March 2013), trade paper (ISBN 9780061928178 / 0061928178)
Fiction, 368 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Harper Audio (June 2012), ISBN 9780062201621; Audible ASIN B008ARPV8Q)
Reason for reading: Personal

Opening lines: “The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could arrive directly–in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier. She wavered a moment in the boat’s stern, then extended a slender hand to grab the mahogany railing; with the other, she pressed a wide-brimmed hat against her head. All around her, shards of sunlight broke on the flickering waves.

“Twenty meters away, Pasquale Tursi watched the arrival of the woman as if in a dream. Or rather, he would think later, as a dream’s opposite: a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website
The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying. 

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio’s back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier. 

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow.

Comments: I’m not often as thoroughly captivated by a novel as I was by Beautiful Ruins, and that makes it challenging to articulate my response to something more than “I loved it!” but I’ll try. I’m sure Jess Walter’s writing would have captured me on its own–and having read this, I’m now that much more determined to liberate The Financial Lives of the Poets from TBR Purgatory–but I do think that reading it as an audiobook probably amplified (no pun intended!) my reaction. Edoardo Ballerini’s reading was nearly perfect, in both English and Italian.

approximate location of Portovergogna
Approximate location of Beautiful Ruins‘ Portovergogna, Italy

Beautiful Ruins is a novel of mid-20th-century Italy and old (and new) Hollywood, conveying its characters back to the final days of World War II and forward through the decades into the present, with detours into the Pacific Northwest and a stop at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The catalyst for it all is the location filming of Cleopatra in Rome in the spring of 1962, a production which proved epic in complications and cost overruns while setting the modern template for behind-the-scenes tabloid scandal. Fifty years after, their experiences on the fringes of that production–and that scandal–still impact the lives of an Italian businessman and an American drama teacher, and a Hollywood mogul attempts to create a third act to his own story by producing a sequel–of sorts–to theirs.

I was very impressed by Walter’s weaving of these story threads–as well as others I’m not mentioning, because if I get too far into a plot discussion I’ll never get to anything else–balancing and connecting them into a fascinating whole. That said, the characters that inhabit Beautiful Ruins (pun somewhat intended this time, as I believe Walter intends multiple meanings to the title) are what make all those plot threads so absorbing. They are complex and convincingly human; I loved several of them, and even the least likable ones have characteristics that won me over to some degree. I genuinely enjoyed discovering how characters connected to one another across the novel’s expanse of time and place; I’d try to guess, and I was right more often than I wasn’t, but I was usually satisfied by the outcome either way. The descriptive passages in the novel are vivid, and so are the emotions it portrays.

My husband has given me ten years to learn conversational Italian so we can travel to Italy, my mother country–that is, the country of my mother’s ancestors. (Tall Paul has no Italian heritage himself, but he does have abiding interests in art and food.) I bought some audiobooks and downloaded a language-instruction app for my iPhone, but I’ve been procrastinating about doing anything with either of them, and now I have only nine years left for this project. Listening to Ballerini perform Beautiful Ruins, evoking the scenes and sounds of Italy’s Ligurian Sea coast, just might be what gets me started on it. Granted, only part of the story takes place there…but I drive past Universal City on my way to and from work every day, and I mostly speak Hollywood’s language already. I also have enough command of my own language to tell you that if you love having literary fiction read to you, I strongly recommend that you listen to Beautiful Ruins (and if audiobooks aren’t your thing, you won’t go wrong just reading it, either); I listened to this one driving back and forth from Hollywood, but I was completely transported by it.

Rating: Book, 4 of 5; Audio, 4.25 of 5

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